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Tribe: The Mangbetu – The Head Elongation Fashionistas of Central Africa

There is a tribe deep in the center of Africa that was once famous for its hair styles that defied nature. They practiced Lipombo’ – the art of  head elongation that denoted majesty and status, a tradition since by the Belgian colonialists who took over the territory in the early 19th Century, contributing to the death of yet another ancient and regal African custom.  

The January and March 1967 issues of the French fashion magazine L’Officiel  featured a series of awe inspiring photographs  under the headlines “Inspired by African Art”  (l’Art Nègre) and “Black Magic,” along with text that vividly reinforced the west’s (circa 60s) preconceptions about Africa: “Africa, this old continent where ancestral myths take refuge in the shadow of baobab trees, on the banks of large, swampy rivers, has inspired almost all of our major designers …”

So who was the magazine talking about? None other than the Mangebtu people of Congo.

An amalgam of linguistically- and culturally-related peoples of northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the  Mangbetu refers to a large people group of the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The major subgroups are the Mangbetu, Meegye, Makere, Malele, Popoi and Abelu. Their ancestral land is one of both forest and savannah and they practice agriculture, small animal husbandry, hunting, fishing and gathering, producing cash crops such as palm oil, coffee, peanuts, rice, bananas, and maize.

Until very recently, the Mangbetu were one of a small number of Congolese peoples who paid death compensations. A person who died was considered to have done so “in the hands of” his father’s family group. This meant that the father’s group had to compensate the mother’s group, regardless of the circumstances of death. Their traditional belief system includes a complex of ideas about witchcraft and sorcery. One such idea is that the power of witchcraft resides in an appendage of the small intestine, which is inherited by girls from their mother and by boys from their father.

Mangbetu Women

Mangbetu Women.A few women of the Mangbetu tribe who have elongated heads; their skulls were lengthened by tight cord when they were infants. | Location: Near Stanleyville, Belgian Congo


Commemorative medal

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Mangbetu were only one of many small groups of people that settled on the northern edge of the Zaire rain forest. At that time, the Mangbetu leader, Nabiembali, gathered a following of warriors and moved north across the upper Bomokandi River to subdue groups of Mangbele and Mabisanga.

Not long afterward, he continued Mangbetu expansion by conquering other peoples in the area, among them groups of Madi, Bangba, Mayogo, Mayvu, Makango, and Barambo. The major significance of Nabiembali’s conquests was that he incorporated non-Kere-speaking peoples into his kingdom. His conquests represented the first time that power had been wielded on a territorial basis.

(This coin from the 1920s shows a characteristic image of a woman from the Mangbetu tribe of the Congo in Central Africa. How do they achieve the elongated dome head? The skulls of their babies are pressed and wrapped between pieces of giraffe hide or wood. As the head grows the bands are replaced until an elongated head is produced. It is thought that the process increases the brain cavity and therefore the intelligence of the child. The Mangbetu hairstyle is further developed to accentuate the shape of the head. After much of the hair is braided, a number of the strands are skillfully interwoven with straw to form a cylindrical design which is secured to the scalp with pins.)

The Mangbetu are basically patrilineal. At the same time, the maternal uncles of a man are very important. It was formerly a common practice for a strong nephew to be accepted as a ruler over his maternal kin. The nephew’s son then became heir to his father’s power. Tied in with these practices was the tradition of giving women to unrelated groups or exchanging women with them. This practice was accepted throughout the region as a form of peacemaking or alliance, but Nabiembali—and the Mangbetu who followed him—turned the custom into an institution of control over the many ethnic groups that were represented among their subjects. One of the primary advantages of this practice was that it could give a weak clan a strong leader, through the clan’s maternal ties; however, Nabiembali used the practice in reverse.

He developed a strategy of marrying many wives, not only to increase productivity, display his wealth, and have many sons, but also to legitimize his conquests and extend his control. His policy worked to the extent that some of his sons were accepted as rulers among their mothers’ peoples. However, because his sons sought to extend their own power and the influence of their maternal clans (over which they ruled), and because they challenged the authority of their father, both centralized power and the extent of Mangbetu rule were eventually weakened.

                                                                                          Grand Chief Mangbetu Okodongwe

The justification of Mangbetu leadership was related to two concepts, nataate and nakira. “Nataate,” loosely translated, refers to one’s capacity to do, or one’s social skills. “Nakira” refers to one’s intelligence or one’s technical and mental skills. Nataate is the dynamic power that exists within a person and makes him respected by others. Nakira is the ability one has in almost any endeavor, but particularly in dancing, singing, and public speaking. The Mangbetu criterion for succession was a combination of hereditary links and ability. Superior nataate and nakira were considered seriously in the choice of a successor to the ruler; therefore, an incompetent firstborn son might be rejected in favor of a more competent younger brother. In practice, many succession problems resulted from this imprecise formula for the transfer of power.

Mangbetu warrior (photograph taken in 1936). They wear some
kind of leather apron as protection.

The Mangbetu achieved a very high level of technological and material development, as indicated by early reports from European explorers. For example, Georg Schweinfurth, the first European to reach the area, visited Mbunza, the Mangbetu ruler, in 1870, and described thousands of subjects at Mbunza’s court as well as hundreds of nobles and courtiers.

Within the capital, there were many large buildings; smaller huts filled with animal skins, feathered hats, and necklaces; and an armory of iron spears, piles of knives, and hundreds of polished copper lances. Mbunza’s household included musicians, eunuchs, jesters, ballad singers, dancers, and bodyguards. Surrounding the capital were large, cultivated fields and orchards of oil palms and other trees (Schweinfurth 1874).

Much of the Mangbetu material culture was probably borrowed from conquered peoples, but the Mangbetu encouraged the development of all the arts of the peoples under their control.

Examples of their crafts include intricately forged chains and knives with carved ivory handles; geometric decoration of bodies, pots, mats, and houses; a distinctive coiffure that emphasized their artificially elongated heads; carefully carved stools, dishes, gongs, trumpets, and canoes; and finely formed human heads made out of clay and wood.

Mangbetu woman and her baby with elongated head

Head Elongation/Head Shaping

‘Lipombo’, the custom of skull elongation, which was a status symbol among the Mangbetu ruling classes at the beginning of the century and was later emulated by neighboring groups, evolved into a common ideal of beauty among the peoples of the northeastern Congo. According to schildkrout and Keim, the tradition survived until the middle of this century, when it was outlawed by the Belgian government.

The Mangbetu had a distinctive look and this was partly due to their elongated heads. At birth the heads of  babies’  were tightly wrapped with cloth in order to give their heads the streamlined look. The practice began dying out in the 1950s with the arrival of more Europeans and westernization. Because of this distinctive look, it is easy to recognize Mangbetu figures in African art.

Mangbetu Women

Mangbetu Women.Some women of the Mangbetu tribe who have elongated heads; their skulls were lengthened by tight cord when they were infants. | Location: Near Stanleyville, Belgian Congo.

Cranial deformation may have played a key role in Egyptian Mayan and Vanuatu societies. Queen Nefertiti is often depicted with what may be an elongated skull, as is King Tutankhamen.

Egyptian daughters of Akhenaten are shown here with long heads

Mangbetu Woman With Infant

A Mangbetu woman holds her baby. Rope tightened around the baby’s head is being used to elongate its skull. The Mangbetu are an ethnic group living in Zaire between the Ituri and Vele Rivers near the towns of Poko, Isiro, and Rungu. | Location: Near Stanleyville, Belgian Congo.

Mangbetu Hairstyles

In 1870, German botanist Georg Schweinfurth was the first European to reach the Mangbetu, who live in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. His exploration account describes them as aristocratic and elegant. Their royal courts, their practice of accentuating the elongation of their heads with elaborate hair styles, their court dances, royal architecture and their arts attracted Western photographers and later film makers in the first half of the 20th century. Profile views of Mangbetu women with the classic coiffure emerged as iconic images and circulated in many media in the West, ranging from postcards, trade cards and postage stamps to sculptures, jewelry, book ends and hood ornaments for cars.   All in all the Mangbetu were and continue to be, a beautiful people and these images of their stunning heritage are a poignant reminder of Africa’s rich history, creativity and magnificence. Lest we forget!  

The photograph depicts old woman doing traditional hairstyle on Mbombio, Chief Mogendo’s principal wife. “The funnel-shaped coiffure which ended in an outward halo, originally symbolic of high social status, was considered exceptionally attractive, and took a lot of time to create. Of the ornaments that embellished the hairstyles of the Mangbetu, and related ethnic groups, combs were reserved for women.” [Sieber R., Herreman F., 2000: Hair in African Art and Culture, Prestel]. During his trip to Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo), Elisofon visited the Mangbetu people living in Medje village, southwest of Isiro. This photograph was taken when Eliot Elisofon was on assignment for National Geographic and traveled to Africa from March 17, 1970 to July 17, 1970.

   From as early as the late 19th century, Western observers have been enthralled by the hairstyles of high status Mangbetu women.  Again, the text reinforces the dresses’ African brand, using images as well as text: “These strangely shaped coiffures are beautiful because of their inspiration in African folklore…  A very serious search of documents on African art, along with bewitching spells, must have been at the core of these creations…”

  Circa 1970.Mbombio, Chief Mogendo’s principal wife, Medje village, Congo. She is shown her with her Mangbetu coiffure with ivory decorative pin

Mbombio, Chief Mogendo’s principal wife watching the tradition Mangbetu dance of her people, Medje village, Congo (Democratic Republic)

Mbombio, Chief Mogendo’s principal wife, Medje village, Congo

Mangbetu Woman, c.1930 (gelatin silver print photo)

Mangbetu Woman, c.1930 (gelatin silver print photo), Queen Elisabeth of Belgium
(1876-1965) / Private Collection / © Michael Graham-Stewart / The Bridgeman Art Library

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